Like its predecessor, The Victorians, this book is a portrait of an age, rather than a formal history.
Eric Ambler (1909-1998) was one of the foremost architects of espionage fiction as it exists today. Like his predecessor Somerset Maugham, Ambler sought to transform the genre from the verbal banality and minimal characterizations of authors William Le Queux and Edward Oppenheim to a more sophisticated, morally ambiguous world of deception and danger.
But, even more importantly, he also struck the first modern note in the evolution of the genre with respect to the degree of personal doubt and insecurity that over-shadows the mission – the same note, albeit greatly amplified, that is found in the novels of such well-known successors as Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and John Le Carré, whose spy stories may be correctly seen, in part at least, as a continuance of John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet.
Set against the backdrop of a yachting trip to the German coast, the story weds a tale of adventure with the reality of Britain’s imperial overreach thus beginning a genre that – as continued by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré – has matured into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world.
Over the preceding two centuries, Ellis notes, a number of English, Scottish, and French thinkers had generated a large body of political knowledge that undermined the medieval worldview about government, society, and even human nature itself. Further, that the American people were the beneficiaries of this accumulated wisdom – “it had yet to be called the Enlightenment,” Ellis reminds us – which, although it had its origins in Europe, was now destined to enjoy its fullest implementation in America…
In twelve short years – from 1788 to 1800 – the world changed, with the late eighteenth century emerging as one of the most momentous, if restless, eras in human history. In Russia, a great dynasty would be toppled; in France, revolution and the guillotine would hold sway; and, in America, the nascent democracy would enter the most critical period of its short existence.
As contemplated by Ferling, few, if any, colonial Americans escaped the impact of hostilities. Wars were frequent and while many men soldiered, many of these same soldiers died. Still others, the least fortunate in some respects came home from the wars, but not in one piece, physically or mentally. Nor were those who bore arms alone in experiencing the terrors of war. Civilians who dwelled on the exposed frontier in wartime lived with the constant fear of a potential surprise attack, and virtually every citizen, in every generation, and in every colony paid war taxes, tolerated wartime scarcities, endured war-induced inflation, and struggled through postwar economic busts.
…essentially, the book remains a story of British upper classes and the author has seemingly trawled an impressive body of memoirs and biographies so as to bring to life any number of entertaining, if gossipy personal vignettes. For example: “Life without champagne was inconceivable for Winston [Churchill].” “Henry Crust joining Lord Curzon in a nude tennis doubles tennis match against George Wyndham and Wilfrid Blunt.” “[The Earl of Lonsdale]…a man apparently incapable of enjoying a healthy sex life with a member of his own class: he collapsed, dead of a heart attack while in action in his own private brothel.”
To be sure, the fifteenth century was one of the most politically unstable periods in English history and most modern readers’ view of the period is heavily colored by Shakespeare. He portrayed the bitter civil war known as the Wars of the Roses as divine punishment for the Lancastrian usurpation and the murder of Richard II, and in his portrayal of Richard III he created one of the most magnificent villains of the English stage.
The story of modern Britain – at least one of the stories – begins some three hundred years ago with the 1707 Treaty of Union between England and Scotland.